How to Build a Culture of Respect
The Demos Lecture
Rabbi Sacks delivered the Demos Lecture at King’s College London on 18th May 2005
Richard, Tom, thank you so much for the introduction. It is an enormous privilege to be associated with Kings’ College which I have really enjoyed these past few years, and no less a privilege, Tom, to take part in the work of Demos of which I am a huge admirer. The whole project of stepping back and thinking long-term, used in the Bible to be done by Prophets, today it’s done by think-tanks. It’s the same task of seeing beyond tomorrow, so I wish you every success.
Speaking personally, I have neither post-graduate qualifications (nor any desire to have them) in prophecy because, as I always say to Elaine, the greatest kindness the Almighty does for us is He never lets us know in advance what we’re letting ourselves in for.
So abdicating prophecy, I was asked by Demos to do something a little unusual. How can I explain what that is? I laugh because even though Hong Kong went back to China in ’97 they still asked me to stay on as their Chief Rabbi so I suppose de facto I’m “Chief Rabbi of China”. And I just love the story of the philosophy professor who was invited to give a lecture on epistemology to the University of Beijing. He did so, and not being about to speak Mandarin was provided with a Chinese interpreter. He began his lecture and after a sentence paused to let the interpreter translate into Chinese but the interpreter said: No, carry on I’ll tell you when to stop. After 15 minutes the interpreter finally said ‘stop’ and delivered five words to the audience in Chinese (I will not even attempt to say what they were in the correct language) and then the interpreter said to the professor, ‘Carry on’.
The same thing happened after 30 minutes, five more words. 45 minutes, another five words and at the end of the lecture after a full hour, the interpreter spoke just four words and the audience duly stood up and filed out. The English philosophy professor went to the interpreter and said, “I’m absolutely astounded. I have given an extremely complicated lecture about epistemology. How were you able to summarise it in so few words?”
And the interpreter said, “Quite easily! After 15 minutes I said, ‘So far he hasn’t said anything new’; after half an hour, I said, ‘He still hasn’t said anything new’; after 45 minutes I said, ‘I don’t think he’s going to say anything new’ and after an hour I said, ‘I was right, he didn’t’.
The challenge Demos set me was to try to say something new that wasn’t actually in the book. So everything you want to know about the Ethics of Responsibility and making a difference in life, and how the individual counts, that’s all there in the book. But tonight I’m going to do something a little different, which is to speak about the political background of the book: why now, why this book, and what is at stake?
And it seems to me that one way of beginning, of finding a point of entry, is in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech. The Queen said:
My Government is committed to creating safe and secure communities and fostering a culture of respect.
The Prime Minister in his first interview after the election said:
I want to make this our particular priority how we bring back a proper sense of respect in our schools, in our communities, in our towns and in our villages.
The Guardian on Monday in its leader entitled ‘The Limits of Politics’ said that there is very little any administration can usefully do; politeness cannot be legislated social capital is something that is built and dissolved over generations – a rather longer term than the span of Parliament.
And again Tony Blair said in that first press conference:
I can only tell you how I think as a person rather than as a politician. There are some very deep causes of this. I can’t solve all these problems.
So this whole issue of society raises some obvious questions. Firstly who creates respect?. Who creates culture? Is it government? Is it some other form of agency or is it us as individuals and as moral agents? And secondly, whether we talk of a culture of respect or a culture of any kind whatsoever, today does that make sense? Can we speak of a national culture anymore? Is that not what the very concept of multiculturalism denies? There is no British culture. Instead there is a plurality of sub-cultures. Is that a tenable position?
Now this therefore is my point of entry because some of you will remember that a year ago two very interesting figures in British life raised just this question. The first one was David Goodhart of Prospect magazine. The second one was Trevor Phillips, Head of the Commission for Racial Equality. And each of them in different ways raised this fundamental question: Is multiculturalism viable in the long-run? It may be a good thing neither of them said otherwise but may it also be too much of a good thing. Goodhart argued that too much multiculturalism, too much cultural diversity erodes social solidarity. It fragments our idea of the common good and we need these things. We need the feeling that we are all part of one thing together if we are to create the kind of sense of mutual responsibility necessary to create a welfare state or indeed a society of common concern.
Trevor Phillips said too much multi-culturalism can create separatism or what other people call in a different context ‘Balkanisation’ or what I called fifteen years ago in the Reith Lectures ‘a society of conflicting ghettos’.
Now is that a danger? I think it is. I mean I don’t know to what extent this came up in the general election campaign but I can tell you my readings of the various constituencies in Britain this is just a personal impression but it is not an impression based on nothing: 1. We have communities like the Hindu community, the Sikh community feeling extremely vulnerable. 2. We have a Muslim community wrestling with internal conflicts as to construe British identity. We have 3. the Christian community different kinds but very much feeling marginalised, on the defensive against an increasingly aggressive secular culture. You have a lot of people in middle England, not necessarily urban but rural populations feeling that somehow or other the country they were born in is not the country they see today – whether that takes the basis of a very tiny little issue like fox hunting or a big issue like immigration feeling somehow or other they can’t make sense of this. 4. Then we have a secular liberal intelligencia that feels quite threatened by a revival of strong religious passions and 5. lastly we have from my own community, the Jewish community, which is feeling very bruised and embattled in the face of rising anti-semitism and anti-Zionism.
I therefore pick up the sense that a lot of people feel a fraying of the social fabric and that is where I start with David Goodhart, with Trevor Phillips the feeling that somehow those woven strands are becoming unwoven.
Now can I do a little academic thing and look at the same problem from a distance? Let’s move back a little and see if we get the same result. Let’s begin I just want to listen very simply to three voices. The first is a political theorist called John Gray. John Gray in recent years, certainly after the death of Isaiah Berlin, wrote a very interesting book on Isaiah Berlin.
I must tell you about Isaiah Berlin, so forgive me for being totally irrelevant: I got to know Isaiah at the very end of his life I wish I’d have known him in his younger days; I will never forget what he said to me he said: Chief Rabbi, whatever you do, don’t talk to me about religion. When it comes to God I am tone deaf. And then he said: What I don’t understand is how you who studied philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge believe. And I said: Isaiah, if it helps you understand, think of me as a lapsed heretic. He said: Och, I understand.
Anyway, so John Gray teasing out the implications of Isaiah Berlin’s political philosophy – what Berlin called following an American thinker Horace Cowan, what he called ‘pluralism’ John Gray published a book in 2002 called ‘The Two Faces of Liberalism’ in which he argued that they’re basically two quite different liberal traditions: the first that he calls ‘Rawlsian liberalism’ and the second, borrowing a term from John Rawls himself but a completely different theory called ‘modus vivendi‘ liberalism. What’s the difference? Rawlsian liberalism is a society where everyone, at least in public is a liberal. In public you speak what John Rawls called the ‘language of public reason’ you leave your private commitments at home; in public you speak a language that everyone shares – you don’t quote proof text, you don’t quote the Bible or what have you, you speak the language of liberalism. So Rawlsian liberalism is the language of a society in which everyone’s a liberal.
Did you ever watch the American comedian, Jackie Mason? Have you ever seen him? He always says: “They laugh at my jokes and then they say … too Jewish.” So Rawlsian liberalism is one in which nobody is too Jewish or too Hindu or something. In public we’re all polite and we’re all liberal and we leave our commitments at home.
Modus vivendi liberalism is a different kind of society altogether in which there are lots of people who are not liberal not in private and not in public where they say very strongly: I am a Catholic, I am a Jew, I am a Muslim and bring those public commitments to the public square. And therefore the question is can you create a liberal democracy out of sub-communities that are not themselves liberal? And out of that you get a different kind of liberalism – modus vivendi liberal which is really making peace between these different factions. Have there been modus vivendi liberal societies?
Well actually there have. I mean one could example would be the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire had a situation in which Muslims, Jews, Christians were all to a degree self-governing. They were quasi-autonomous communities within the big Empire. Now that is a model of modus vivendi liberalism but that is not in Britain as it has been until now. It is therefore quite a challenge when John Gray tells us that we are about to enter new territory; we are leaving behind the liberal democracy that we’ve known in Britain since the 1960s or maybe from the 1860s, from John Stuart Mill, and we are moving towards a culture in which people bring their private commitments with them into the public domain. We wear our badges of identity in public.
So John Gray is telling us that we are about to enter new territory; we are leaving behind the liberal democracy that we’ve known in Britain since the 1960s or maybe from the 1860s, from John Stuart Mill, and we are moving towards a culture in which people bring their private commitments with them into the public domain. We wear our badges of identity in public. So John Grey is telling us: Yes, there is this problem and a multi-cultural society could be liberal but it will be in a different way to the liberalism we’ve known until now. So that’s voice number 1.
Voice number 2 – Samuel Huntingdon, Mr ‘clash of civilisations’. Now as you know, in the 1990s there was this fascinating argument. Francis Fuchayama – the end of history; Sam Huntingdon – the clash of civilisations.; Francis Fuchayama believed the world was becoming modern and therefore American. Sam Huntingdon said the world is becoming modern but that can mean anti-American as well.
And I think it’s reasonable to say that since 9/11 Huntingdon won that debate, or at least if the end of history is about to happen it’s going into extra-time. Anyway, one of the interesting questions that I always ask is when a thinker catches the mood of the moment, follow him and see what he does next. What kind of book would you have expected Sam Huntingdon to write after the success of ‘Clash of Civilisations’? Something more on the clash of civilisations or star wars or what have you or, I don’t know, something on religious extremism, something on terror who knows? But that’s what you would have expected. Here it is: He struck a chord, got it right, do the sequel.
Did he do that? Actually he didn’t. You know what book Sam Huntingdon wrote next published 2003? It was a book called ‘Who Are We?’. ‘Who Are We?’ is a book about American identity. It is a very interestingly book that insists that America is a Christian country. That’s the entire thesis of the question of the book ‘Who Are We?’. Now this is a very odd book indeed for Sam Huntingdon to write – I don’t know Sam Huntingdon but it is not what I would have predicted he would write next and it is surprising unless you actually read ‘Clash of Civilisations‘. Thank heavens nobody who pontificated about it actually read the book but if you read the book you will see that in the last chapter Sam Huntingdon is not saying: Let us impose American values on the world. He’s saying: I’m not even sure if we can impose American values on America. And that is what ‘Who Are We?’ is about. Forget about the rest of the world. Let it be enough for Americans to know what it is to be an American.
So are you with me? We’re beginning to see a pattern. David Goodhart, Trevor Phillips, John Gray, Sam Huntingdon all converging from their different points on a single identifiable territory, namely what is the common good in a society where there are no shared values, where there is no moral consensus? What is national identity when you have very strong religious and ethnic sub-cultures, when you can’t even talk about national identity at least in Europe without being called ‘racist’, ‘exclusionary’, etc? Is modus vivendi liberalism i.e. a society composed out of non-liberal groups possible as John Gray seems to think or do we have to go back to an essentially 19th Century model of one single dominant culture the way Sam Huntingdon says: Let’s go back to Christian America which he’s really saying: Let’s go back to the 19th Century.
So there are four voices all raising this puzzle and I want to add one fifth voice because I’m in King’s and I can get away with a bit of long words here and a bit of philosophy and here it is: There’s a fifth voice.
I tell you, I gave up philosophy a long time ago and one book attracted me back and that is a book published in 1981, a book called ‘After Virtue‘ by Alistair McIntyre. Have you read this book? You really should. It’s much better than mine! This is a wonderful book. In it Alistair McIntyre argues that moral language has in the West completely broken down. All we are left is / all that is left is fragments and fragments that you cannot put back together again. One result of the fragmenting of moral language is that we can no longer do politics in the classic sense of the Greek city state, the Polis (?) where people shared values and debated on the basis of those values their common destiny. We don’t have that shared language anymore and therefore all you can do in politics is shout and he or she who shouts loudest wins. This leads to Alastair McIntyre’s famous conclusion that modern politics is civil war carried out by other means. This is 1981.
Now he ends the book on a monumentally pessimistic apocalyptic note which I must read you because I enjoy it so much – it’s lovely to find somebody who’s really miserable and here it is. Listen very carefully:
“It is always dangerous as McIntyre [writes] in the last paragraph of the book. It is always dangerous to draw two precise parallels between one historical period and another and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are.
Listen very carefully. He says:
“A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of goodwill turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperialism. What they were setting themselves to achieve, instead of not recognising fully what they were doing, was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new Dark Ages which are already upon us and if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last Dark Ages, we’re not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.”
Now first of all Alistair McIntyre is telling us we’re entering a new Dark Age. I don’t call that any kind of new sentiment. I love the account of the sociologist, Peter Berger who says: When was the first intellectual born? He said: When the tribe stopped beating the drums for long enough for somebody to let out a sentence and we can tell says Peter Berger what that sentence was it was this tribe is in a state of crisis.
So, seeing crisis is par for the course, it is what you do for a living when you’re a Professor of Philosophy. Much more interesting, what is really interesting is what McIntyre gives us as the sign. If you want to see the sign that a particular form of civilisation is in serious danger look for when people turn inward, when they begin to get interested and focused wholly on their particular community and not on the wider society. Are you with me? When you turn inward and you no longer define yourself as British but as Jewish or Muslim or Sikh then you’re in danger because that is the end of society and all that survives is local forms of community.
Now I can tell you quite categorically that that is what is happening today and I see it quite clearly in our own community. Let me give you an example. As Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth I run around an awful lot and I go and I see communities let’s say in Wellington (New Zealand), Perth (Australia), wherever and what I see time and again is the old Rabbi who’s retired and the young Rabbi who’s taken his place and the difference between them is enormous. The old Rabbi was a civic figure in the local community took part in public affairs, other faith leaders knew him; he was generally known to the community. He was part of the sense that the Jewish community was part of Wellington or Auckland or Perth or Melbourne or what have you. He was a civic [figure] and that was a very important part of his role. The young Rabbi nothing of the kind; does not go to civic events, is much more interested in his Talmud class than the wider society and that is a turning inward. You will find that same inward turn in almost every religious and ethnic community in Britain today.
Now all I can remember, Richard, is when I was 8 years old and somebody bought me the Guinness Book of Records and I was thrilled to discover the longest word in the English dictionary was anti-disestablishmentarianism. Little did I know that I would grow up to be an anti-disestablishmentarian.
However, when the Church of England says: Let us disestablish. Let’s forget Britain. Let’s focus on the Christian community then the Church of England is thinking of turning inward. We’re all turning inward and what Alistair McIntyre tells us is when we all turn inward forget the future of society we are in serious mode, breakdown mode.
So here we are. We have had five thinkers now all giving us warning and that is Goodhart, Trevor Phillips, John Gray, Sam Huntingdon, Alistair McIntyre from very different perspectives and they are telling us that when communities turn inward that is a sign of social collapse somewhere along the line, the social fabric is unravelling. It’s not so much that we are losing the culture of respect as we are losing culture full-stop.
We today have in Britain a series of sub-cultures each of which has its own priorities, its own agenda which is right and proper but none of us can fully think clearly about what the common good for Britain as a whole any longer is because it’s no longer clear what Britain is as a whole, as an identity, as a culture … and that is where I begin. That’s the problem. How serious a problem is it? I’m going to be very short because on that I wrote another book called ‘The Politics of Hope‘ where I distinguished between two kinds of political theory. Number 1 social contract. Number 2 social covenant. And they are different.
Social contract creates a state. A social covenant creates a society. A social contract is all the stuff we read about in our papers under the headings of ‘politics’ and ‘economics’ the mediated conflict of individuals in relation in politics to power, in economics to wealth. That is social contract stuff. Social covenant, which has to do with meaning, culture, morality, that is more local and it very rarely gets into the News. That is born and sustained in families, in communities, in traditions, in congregations, in memories, in cultures and in faiths. That is social covenant and what in the 19th Century with Hagel and Alexis de Tocqueville was called civil society.
So here is the issue – can we recreate a society of the common good and I am now going to give you the answers.
Number 1, here is the answer as far as I understand it that would have been given at any time between 1850 and 1950 and can I use a metaphor here because I don’t know the right words, I didn’t go to school for long enough on this one, but here’s a metaphor. I call it ‘the country house metaphor’. Society is an enormous country house. Newcomers arrive at the town. They turn up at the gates of the country house. The host of the country house comes out with an enormous smile on his face and says: Welcome visitors, lovely to see you. I have a huge house here. It’s got lots and lots of empty rooms. Please stay as long as you like. That is the country house …..
Now what happens on that scenario? You are hugely grateful to the owner of the house. He loves it but you’re conscious as long as you’re there that you are a guest. It’s his home, not yours.
I have a wonderful example of this. I don’t know if you’ve seen it. Just outside Liverpool Street station. A couple of years ago or a year ago we unveiled a memorial for the programme that rescued a thousand Jewish kids from Nazi Germany in 1939 the programme called ‘Kindertransport’ a wonderful life-saving thing and one of the survivors of Kindertransport, a lady called Bertha Leviton, told a story of her arrival in Britain she could remember every single detail including the scrambled eggs and everything and she gave a wonderful image. Here she was, she’d lost her family, she’d lost her parents to the camps, she was arriving as a stranger in a strange land and she was desperately hungry but they whispered in her ear that you are now in England, Bertha, and when you’re in England you have to leave a little food on your plate because it’s polite to do so. So here she is, starving, but she leaves a little on the plate because now she’s in England and she has to do things the English way.
Now, look: she loved it – she loved being English, she loved being Jewish – but she knew perfectly well she was a guest and the rule there is that first generation feels like a guest and it then wants its children to be anything but a guest so they have to become enormously English.
You know there was this wonderful language called Yiddish which lasted for one thousand years. It died in one generation because my parents generation didn’t teach their kids Yiddish because they wanted them to be very English. In one generation Yiddish died. Now if you want to study it you can go to Oxford they have a course there. I used to say in the old days you went to Oxford to forget Yiddish today you go to Oxford to remember Yiddish but they wanted our kids to be English.
I cannot tell you how moved I was ten years ago when I wrote a book called ‘Faith In The Future‘ and Clifford Longley wrote a lovely introduction in which he said it’s a nice book and this, that, and the other, and he said: Even when Sacks is boring he is boring in an English kind of way. I thought: how wonderful! oh my parents – mum, dad – you did it! So that was great.
That is theory (1) what I call the country house model which says there’s one single dominant culture, exactly as Sam Huntingdon wants to recreate in America and it’s an assimilationist model which means that if you come and you want to belong and not just feel a guest you have to get rid of your culture or play it very very low profile indeed.
One Jewish intellectual, Sidney Morgenbesser who was Professor of Philosophy at Colombia used to describe that phenomenon as ‘incognito ergo sum.’ That’s model number 1.
What took its place the second model which we have been living in for the last half century; that, the second model, is society is not a country house it is a hotel. Society is a hotel. What is a hotel? You pay for services rendered in return you get a room, you get room services, you get meals beyond that you are free to do whatever you like so long as you don’t disturb the other guests.
I love the story about the guy who went to a hotel and always found the alarm call – the thing that wakes you up – He thought that was a bit too rude, awakened by the telephone while you’re still asleep, so he used to devise a gentler way which was he would place alarm calls for the two rooms either side of [his]. Muffled sounds of protests woke him gently from his sleep. But I mean, that’s against the rules. That’s the only thing that’s against the rules: don’t disturb the other guests. But otherwise society is a hotel now. That is the pure social contract model. That is the Rawlsian liberal model politics is procedural, it’s managerial. You don’t run politics by your vision of the common good. All you do is you offer the best public services for the least cost in taxation and you get general election campaigns not unlike the one we’ve just had.
That is great, it’s great, except for one thing. A hotel in principle generates no loyalty. A hotel is somewhere where you don’t belong, you don’t ever expect to belong. It isn’t a home. It’s a convenience. It’s where you happen to be. And therefore when society becomes a hotel as it has become in the last fifty years you get no sense of national identity, of belonging, of common history, of common good, of moral consensus, of social solidarity and that is where we are now and that was why David Goodhart, Trevor Phillips et al said ‘we are in trouble’ because society as a hotel is great but in the long-run it does not sustain a social sense of belonging.
So that is where I come in with the one thing I wanted to say … which is, is there a third model, a post multi-cultural model and I suggest there is?
Now I’m going to begin to describe this by quoting the Bible do forgive me; that’s what I do for a living. It had to happen sometime. I love that statement of Heinrich Heine on his deathbed: God will forgive me, it’s what He’s there for. So I quote the Bible.
The Bible poses, in the Book of Exodus, a very interesting political issue. Moses is rescuing a group of people, some of them are liberated slaves, others of whom are what this Bible quaintly calls a ‘mixed multitude’ and he wants to do something which in the Home Office is called ‘social cohesion.’ How do you create out of this rabble social cohesion?
Now you’ve got to admit he goes for the big gesture and divides the Red Sea. It doesn’t work. Gives them Ten Commandments from the Almighty himself on Mount Sinai and it doesn’t work; they still make the Golden Calf and they’re still a rabble and the question remains, how do I get this recalcitrant bunch to become a nation, a people with a collective identity?
And then in the second half of the Book of Exodus he does something which is absolutely fascinating. He says, if you want to build a society, get the society to build something get them involved in a common project, a common construction. He gets them to build a ‘Mishkan’ – in English that’s called a ‘Tabernacle’ or a ‘Sanctuary’ – a portable House of God – and he gets them to build it and he says: no compulsion here but whoever wants – any man, any women, whose spirit moves them – bring something to the Tabernacle. Some brought gold, some silver, some bronze, some gave money, some gave time, some gave their skills everyone who wanted to gave something and out of that came their collective building. The essence was this building was made out of many different kinds of contribution. Had everyone given the gold or silver you couldn’t have built a Tabernacle. The difference, the diversity, was the very essence but that was a diversity centred on a collaborative project, the house we built together.
And that I offer as my third model. Society, not as a country house, not as a hotel but as the home we build together. It’s not a hotel. It’s a home. It’s somewhere we belong but it’s not a country house because a country house is where the owner feels at home but I feel like a guest. If you help build something, you’re not a guest. If I can say to my children: I helped build that – then that is mine. And that is a third model society as the home we build together.
As it actually happens there is a magnificent charity that does this worldwide called ‘Habitat for Humanity’ which brings together all sorts of groups businesses, volunteers to build homes for the homeless, 130,000 of them across the world.
So that model exists but I’m quoting it as a metaphor, a third metaphor, a post multi-cultural metaphor where society is not neutral but it is the home we build together. It is a shared project in which all the different sub-communities of our culture take part or if you want another model it’s a conversation scored for many voices. It is a complex common good made out of many different value systems but it is an answer to the question: How do we in our different faiths or different secularities join together to build this home which is where we live and where we belong?
Who are the key players in this model? They’re clearly not politicians. They’re clearly not the business world. We are not dealing here with self-interest, whether in terms of power and politics or wealth and economics. We are talking civil society. We are talking of the project of building something together; therefore we are talking about schools, about congregations, about neighbourhood groups, about charities, about local civic associations and yes, about religious congregations and religious leaders. And all their heroes as well who are I suppose the only moral role models we’ve got left, whether that’s Bob Geldof or Bono or Jamie Oliver but one way or another this is how you make civil society. How? Not by appealing to interests but by appealing to altruism. Not by appealing to self-regard but by appealing to other regard.
If we are to make such a society we are going to have to put the collective good back at the heart of political discourse and it is not therefore simply that politics is the agenda this group or that group and who has the most persuasive voice or the largest number of votes. It is the collective good we make together.
Now I want to explain to you why I wrote this book. Why did I write ‘To Heal a Fractured World‘? If you read it you will understand that at the very moment that the Jewish community is turning inward I have written a book to turn it back outward again. It is saying: Guys, be concerned with the people around. I mean I’ve got to say I was partially responsible for that inward turn. I said: Let’s build more Jewish schools, let’s build stronger Jewish communities. I did it, we did it. And that’s great for the Jewish community in Britain but where is our civic participation if that’s what happens and that’s why I wrote this book to turn us / to give equal weight to the other thing that we are part of this thing called ‘society’ and we have to share what we have with others.
Now you will understand why when you read this book it’s a very Jewish book; it is not like my other books. It is not written in the language of public reason. It is written in the language of my faith. If I can get my faith and its inward-lookingness to speak to the wider and, who knows, maybe even strike resonances with people who aren’t Jewish, then I hope a Christian will do the same and a Muslim and a Sikh and a Hindu; say: Guys, there is a wider society out there and we have to contribute. We may be deeply religious and at home with the people like us but we also have to care for the people who are not like us. What I am trying to do is democratise responsibility and say it belongs to all of us.
Society is what each of us, singularly and together, actually make. In the country house model it’s not me who’s responsible it’s the owner of the country house; I’m just the guest. The guy there has the worry about who mends the roof and the plumbing and …
I was just reminding myself of a friend in Israel who calls his local plumber ‘the messiah’. He says: I wait in daily but he never turns up.
In the country house model: It’s the owner who’s responsible not me.
In the hotel model: Yes, I’m responsible for any damage and that responsibility is factored in as part of the bill that I pay but I discharge that responsibility by paying that bill and then it’s the owner of the hotel who looks after it; it’s not me.
In the ‘home we build together’ model, the responsibility is with me, with you, with us. We are members of the team. We are co-builders of a home. We are fellow citizens in the collaborative project of constructing this society which belongs to us. This is an ethic of responsibility and I believe you can create it by focusing on altruism which is what this book does on every single page, by focusing on responsibility which it does on every page and by rehabilitating the language of altruism. I’ve got to tell you it works. Don’t believe that altruism is not as strong in Britain today as it ever was. It is. You saw it in our response to the Tsunami. You saw it in our response and you will see it in our response to make poverty history. We’re a country full of altruists. It’s just that who talks that language we all feel it – but you watch the media, you listen to the politicians and when they talk about altruism they get laughed off the stage. So therefore somebody’s got to put that language back and that’s what I’ve tried to do in the book and encourage others to do likewise.
So there it is. It’s a book about the things we can’t delegate. If we want to create a culture, a shared society, we can’t say that is the government’s responsibility entirely or it is the market’s responsibility entirely. It is us individually and in our separate communities who come together to build the home we all share.
Now is that doable? I don’t know. All I know is I never give up hope and I end with my latest mentor and tutor in the social virtue of hope. I’ve acquired a new and wonderful tutor. It lives in my car and it’s called a satellite navigation system. Have you ever seen one of these things? It’s an amazing brilliant thing. There’s only one problem with it which is whoever designed this satellite navigation system never met a Jewish driver. What you do is, you key in your destination and a very very polite lady tells you how to get there. It says you go straight for 300 yards and then you turn left, and it’s lovely except that, as I say, they never met a Jewish driver because what happens with a Jewish driver this polite lady says 300 yards and then you turn left and the Jewish driver says: What does she know? I’ve been here for fifty years I know … If you want to really get [there] you turn right.
And it is a model. It is such an education watching how this wonderful satellite navigation system responds, when you’ve done something wrong, and flagrantly ignored its instructions. What does it do? First of all it stays very calm and then it flashes up a little signal saying ‘recalculating the route.’
From which I learned the following lesson in hope, which is: however many wrong turnings we take in life, so long as we know where we want to go, there is a route from here to there. If that is not a lesson in hope, I don’t know what is.
Thank you very much.